Still Our Ancient Foe

And still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe.

-- Martin Luther, "A Mighty Fortress"

I was short-tempered with my wife the other night, not for the first time and for reasons that had little to do with her.  Whenever I am tempted to think how far I have come, I am reminded of how far I still have to go.  It is especially sobering when you consider what we are called to be.  "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," Jesus admonished.  This is unsettling on two counts: first, that the standard by which we are judged is perfection; and second, that the standard of perfection is God.  We look at the world God created and are dismayed to see it is so thoroughly corrupted by evil.  If God is perfect, then the evil in the world must be intentional, which is perhaps most unsettling of all.

Theologians have duly considered the problem of evil and long ago discarded any explanation that would have let God off the hook.  One of the oldest and tidiest explanations is that evil operates independently of God, setting up a comic-book battle between the forces of light and darkness for control of the universe.   This notion relieves us of having to reconcile evil with the idea of a loving God.  But it ultimately puts us in even greater peril by leaving open the possibility that the universe will be swallowed up by darkness.  The theologians wisely concluded that the lesser evil was to lay evil at God's doorstep and leave us all wondering what he is up to.

Scripture holds out the hope that there will be a final settling of accounts, but in the meantime we must wrestle with our demons.  Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit of God and found the devil there waiting for him.  Buddha had a similar encounter with Mara, the ruler of desire and death.  Martin Luther was tormented by the devil in the night and hurled an inkwell at him.  It is no longer fashionable, even in many religious circles, to take such stories too literally.  However, it is certainly true, as the Apostle Paul observed, that whenever we seek to do good, evil lies close at hand.

Why should this be so?  I suspect the answer would be similar to the one given to Julian of Norwich when she prayed for an explanation of sin: "It is necessary."   Sooner or later, we have to face up to our demons and vanquish them, otherwise we will find ourselves dancing with the devil every time the music plays.  "Resist the devil and he will flee from you," the Apostle James advised.  "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you."  In some unfathomable way, God and the devil go together; in fact, they may be joined at the hip. 

James 4:7-8

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